Can Randomness be an Ally in the Forecasting Battle?

Feynman’s perspective illuminates our journey:  “In its efforts to learn as much as possible about nature, modern physics has found that certain things can never be “known” with certainty. Much of our knowledge must always remain uncertain. The most we can know is in terms of probabilities.” ― Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

When we try to understand the complex world of logistics, randomness plays a pivotal role. This introduces an interesting paradox: In a reality where precision and certainty are prized, could the unpredictable nature of supply and demand actually serve as a strategic ally?

The quest for accurate forecasts is not just an academic exercise; it’s a critical component of operational success across numerous industries. For demand planners who must anticipate product demand, the ramifications of getting it right—or wrong—are critical. Hence, recognizing and harnessing the power of randomness isn’t merely a theoretical exercise; it’s a necessity for resilience and adaptability in an ever-changing environment.

Embracing Uncertainty: Dynamic, Stochastic, and Monte Carlo Methods

Dynamic Modeling: The quest for absolute precision in forecasts ignores the intrinsic unpredictability of the world. Traditional forecasting methods, with their rigid frameworks, fall short in accommodating the dynamism of real-world phenomena. By embracing uncertainty, we can pivot towards more agile and dynamic models that incorporate randomness as a fundamental component. Unlike their rigid predecessors, these models are designed to evolve in response to new data, ensuring resilience and adaptability. This paradigm shift from a deterministic to a probabilistic approach enables organizations to navigate uncertainty with greater confidence, making informed decisions even in volatile environments.

Stochastic modeling guides forecasters through the fog of unpredictability with the principles of probability. Far from attempting to eliminate randomness, stochastic models embrace it. These models eschew the notion of a singular, predetermined future, presenting instead an array of possible outcomes, each with its estimated probability. This approach offers a more nuanced and realistic representation of the future, acknowledging the inherent variability of systems and processes. By mapping out a spectrum of potential futures, stochastic modeling equips decision-makers with a comprehensive understanding of uncertainty, enabling strategic planning that is both informed and flexible.

Named after the historical hub of chance and fortune, Monte Carlo simulations harness the power of randomness to explore the vast landscape of possible outcomes. This technique involves the generation of thousands, if not millions, of scenarios through random sampling, each scenario painting a different picture of the future based on the inherent uncertainties of the real world. Decision-makers, armed with insights from Monte Carlo simulations, can gauge the range of possible impacts of their decisions, making it an invaluable tool for risk assessment and strategic planning in uncertain environments.

Real-World Successes: Harnessing Randomness

The strategy of integrating randomness into forecasting has proven invaluable across diverse sectors. For instance, major investment firms and banks constantly rely on stochastic models to cope with the volatile behavior of the stock market. A notable example is how hedge funds employ these models to predict price movements and manage risk, leading to more strategic investment choices.

Similarly, in supply chain management, many companies rely on Monte Carlo simulations to tackle the unpredictability of demand, especially during peak seasons like the holidays. By simulating various scenarios, they can prepare for a range of outcomes, ensuring that they have adequate stock levels without overcommitting resources. This approach minimizes the risk of both stockouts and excess inventory.

These real-world successes highlight the value of integrating randomness into forecasting endeavors. Far from being the adversary it’s often perceived to be, randomness emerges as an indispensable ally in the intricate ballet of forecasting. By adopting methods that honor the inherent uncertainty of the future—bolstered by advanced tools like Smart IP&O—organizations can navigate the unpredictable with confidence and agility. Thus, in the grand scheme of forecasting, it may be wise to embrace the notion that while we cannot control the roll of the dice, we can certainly strategize around it.

 

 

 

The Average is Not the Answer

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning,

forecasting and inventory optimization

Fluctuations in an inventory supply chain are inevitable. Randomness, which can be a source of confusion and frustration, guarantees it. A ship carrying goods from China may be delayed by a storm at sea. A sudden upswing in demand one day can wipe out inventory in a single day, leaving you unable to meet the next day’s demand. Randomness creates frictions that make it hard to do your job.

At first blush, it sometimes seems best to respond to randomness with the ostrich approach: head buried in the sand. You can settle on a prediction and proceed on the assumption that the prediction will always be spot on. The flaw in that approach is that it ignores statistical methods that allow us to make use of a wealth of knowledge about our knowledge itself—how confident we can be in our predictions, and what breadth of possibilities confront us. The efficient approach to tackling the problems that stem from randomness is not to ignore uncertainty, but to embrace it with eyes open.

As a fundamental tenet of Smart Software’s approach to forecasting, we will always provide you with an assessment of the level of uncertainty in forecasts. If you are expecting nothing more than an absolute figure—the demand for widgets in February will be 120 units—you may dismiss the added element of uncertainty as a negative, or lose faith in a forecast you had hoped would be definite. But we argue for what we consider the adult approach; you need to know what you are risking when you commit to a forecast and premise your decision-making upon it.

Your forecasts can have big consequences that go beyond inventory stocking levels. They can determine your raw materials needs or staffing levels—forecasts drive many important resource allocation decisions. If you have too much faith in the most likely outcome, without also specifically considering just how likely it is, you aren’t really understanding the risks you face, and you may put yourself in a precarious position.

The need to make fully informed decisions forces us to see, in a forecast, the plus/minus range of results with a certain likelihood of occurring. In the specific case of forecasts that are going into inventory systems, this is an important part of deliberately planning for contingencies. This is how you determine not only the inventory you need to maintain in order to satisfy typical demand, but also the additional inventory you need on hand to deal with most unexpected outcomes.

This importance only increases when you are trying to maintain a reliable store of critical spare parts. Between the cost of stocking additional inventory, and accounting for the degree of reliability in your forecasts, there is a balance that crystallizes when an airplane that you need in the air is grounded—because you don’t have the replacement for a damaged part.

(While stocking extra inventory relies on the high end of the uncertainty range, if cash flow is tight, it’s the low end of the range that becomes important. Treasury-minded users find value in this other side of uncertainty in scenarios where even minimal overstocking can be more of a problem than a missed sales opportunity, for example. Reliable information about the lowest likely outcomes pays off at this time.)

Inventory theory says that you need to think about the outer ends of likely possibilities and prepare to cope with more scenarios than just what is most likely. Randomness is a reality that can’t be ignored. The average is not the answer.

Thomas Willemain, PhD, co-founded Smart Software and currently serves as Senior Vice President for Research. Dr. Willemain also serves as Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and as a member of the research staff at the Center for Computing Sciences, Institute for Defense Analyses.

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